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RESTAURANTS / MAX JACOBSON

Desserts, Designs . . . Anything but De Plain at Barbacoa

February 21, 1991|MAX JACOBSON

David Wilhelm is getting to be a hard man to track.

Just a year ago, you could count on finding him at Kachina, a delightful Laguna Beach restaurant created as a vehicle for his idiosyncratic Southwestern cuisine. Well and good; but then he went fancy at Bistro 201, a grown-up-looking restaurant in an Irvine office complex.

Now he's turned the tables on us again. His new restaurant, Barbacoa, serves a whole slew of tropical foods and savories in a Fantasy Island setting, housed in a converted disco overlooking Newport Harbor.

I'm not quite sure what the man is trying to do this time, but I'm here to tell you that he makes an impression. If you don't like the way the place looks, you won't be alone. A curmudgeonly friend of mine called it the coffee shop from hell.

He was put off by the low-slung ceiling and the concrete support columns, but personally, I think his brain has gone soft. Coffee shop? When was the last time you heard reggae in a coffee shop?

And I dare you to find me a coffee shop with amenities like these. The back wall is dominated by a 45-foot-wide sculpture that looks like a jumble of iridescent, multicolored Gummi Bears. Wilhelm's brother, Robert, designed it, and it is so full of life you'd swear it was kinetic.

Then there are the stone-like tables and otherworldly tropical plants scattered throughout the room, flooded in strange light emanating upward from the floor. When you sit in the pastel upholstered booths, it's almost like taking refuge from something wild and indescribable.

Like Wilhelm's food, maybe. Most of the dishes that come out of this restaurant's swank, open kitchen have the stamp of wild-eyed, frenzied creativity. A great number also taste of mesquite (a Wilhelm trademark) from the restaurant's rotisserie grill.

You're greeted by a basket of good spicy corn bread, served steaming hot. Then, if you're clever, you'll choose as an appetizer the wonderful crisp-fried oysters with smoked chili sauce (another Wilhelm trademark). The coconut shrimp with hot mustard and tangerine sauce are good, too, even though the fruit sauce tastes like watery marmalade. Caribbean seafood gumbo is another possible starter, a thick, very spicy stew with trace elements that seem vaguely marine.

You head back to suburbia on the bland, tasteless chicken spring rolls with plum wine and cilantro sauce--soggy-skinned finger food remarkably similar to frozen egg rolls. You rocket into space (temporarily) with grilled hearts of romaine in herb Caesar dressing, a crazy dish that falls flat. I can forgive a dressing that tastes like garlicked-up Thousand Island, but Wilhelm is pushing his luck when he leaves the knot in the lettuce.

The island represented by the pizza section must be Sicily. Spicy, barbecue-shrimp pizza with colorful peppers and Bermuda onions is a delicious concept. So is the pepperoni, pineapple, Maui onion and basil pizza, with toppings that also work fine.

Jamaica must have inspired the restaurant's rasta pasta--vegetable noodles with chicken and hot chilies--but I thought I was on Devil's Island when I was eating it. This is probably the hottest dish I've eaten outside a Thai restaurant. Don't make the same mistake.

Main courses are strictly from the temperate zone. The waiter insisted we try rotisserie duck with spicy plum-ginger sauce and duck fried rice. That turned out to be another mistake. The fried rice was tasty enough, but the meat was dried out and stringy.

Next time, I'll take the island Manhattan; Wilhelm does a superb grilled New York steak in a rich green peppercorn sauce. Rack of lamb from the wood-burning oven has a reasonable curry sauce and some authentic mango chutney. And since these are the islands, expect a whole lot of fish.

If only every one of them was as good as the mesquite-grilled tiger prawns, dressed with orange, ginger, sesame and mint. This may be the best in the house--a dish that tastes like dream Thai food. It's the one oddball combination here that actually works.

The others are average to good. Salmon is mesquite-grilled and served with papaya, citrus and sweet basil relish. The wok-seared rock shrimp with fresh herbs and red rice is too bland; a blackened, rare ahi with a weird pineapple chili sauce isn't bland enough.

Desserts are always strong in Wilhelm's restaurants, and probably the most consistent course at this one. Warm Jamaican brownie sundae is an absolute killer, one of the fudgiest squares anywhere, topped with an intense, homemade coffee ice cream. Mango creme brulee is another inspired choice, amazingly textured and refreshing. I even liked the macadamia and toasted coconut pie, a solid wedge of rich candy.

Wilhelm must enjoy this dessert too. As long as he doesn't bite off more of it than he can chew.

Barbacoa is moderately expensive. Appetizers are $4.75 to $9.50. Pizzas are $9.75 to $11.50. Pastas are $10.50 to $13.95. Main courses are $14.75 to $18.95. Desserts are $5 to $5.95. There is a sleek bar menu of appetizers and pizzas ranging from $1.50 to $11.50. * BARBACOA

* 3333 Coast Highway, Newport Beach.

* (714) 646-6090.

* Open for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 through 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 11 p.m.

* All major cards accepted.

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